When RAGE was announced a few years ago, the common consensus was that it was another big, dumb shooter (but this time with cars); another id Software game where the technology was in the driving seat and the game logic and creativity were riding double-barrelled shotgun.
As more cerebral shooters like BioShock and Deus Ex honed into view, those facts turned into worries. Were the Masters of DOOM being left behind?
The closer we get to release, however, the more RAGE - name aside, perhaps - resembles a grown-up id Software game. It's certainly not just a few ideas thrown at a Megatexture in the hope some will stick.
The single-player is big and brash, of course - a run-and-gun set in the aftermath of a Roland Emmerich special effects tornado - but it also boasts an interesting battlefield economy, various ways to customise your approach to combat and an impressive variety of locations and gameplay styles.
Today we're getting to hear about the multiplayer for the first time and also to see and play more of the single-player campaign, which we're told will clock in at somewhere between 15 and 20 hours.
Multiplayer, it turns out, is not your standard bounce-pads and rocket-launchers fare, but a mixture of vehicular combat and two-player co-op. The two halves are RAGE Combat Rally and Legends of the Wasteland, and both are examples of function following form.
The idea for Combat Rally came about when id was working on the single-player - the designers wanted to throw other people into cars and get involved with one another.
What they came up with is a bit like a cross between Quake 3 Arena and Smuggler's Run. There are dozens of little checkpoint markers scattered over the landscape and the game lights one up at a time. You and (currently) up to five opponents need to race to it to earn multipliers, and you gain points for kills along the way.
The 60fps gameplay means the vehicles look extremely manoeuvrable, and you have the expected array of weapons (mines, rockets, machineguns) and abilities (e-brake, boost, aerial controls). Vehicles take loads of damage, spouting flames, but can be repaired with healing items.
Pleasingly, for the moment the game uses the Quake voice ("YOU HAVE LOST THE LEAD") to call the action. Apparently id has retained the services of a real actor to record some alternative shouting, but internally there is great debate about whether to go with a new voice or stick with the old. (Stick with the old!) One oldie that definitely makes the cut is the quad damage power-up. Teehee.
The environment we see is a drained riverbed awash with hulking shipwrecks, criss-crossed by highways and sandwiched within canyon walls under a bleak grey-red sky.
There are loads of gullies and there's plenty of verticality, and because the game's selection of the next active checkpoint is not linear - it actually has to do with where the current leader is pointing - the lead changes hands quite a lot. There seems to be a healthy mixture of skill and serendipity in match outcomes.
There will be at least five maps out of the box, and there are a few variations on the standard guns-and-checkpoints setup - team-based, obviously, plus chain rally (hit three rally points in succession for more points) and classic vehicle deathmatch without the checkpoints if you want that. You'll also be able to unlock better weapons, items and vehicles as you level up.
The other half of multiplayer is Legends of the Wasteland, and the idea here is to dramatise events described by characters in the single-player campaign. For example, at some stage you may hear about the time the Shrouded clan overran Wellspring and tried to blow up the water supply, and how a couple of brave souls went in to rout them. In the mission we see (there will be "at least" eight in total), we are those brave boys...
The episodes are short and sweet. In this case you disarm the first bomb quite swiftly, then move through the streets of Wellspring clearing Shrouded. The detail level of id Tech 5 continues to astound, and the Wellspring design is interesting too - bright, unrepeated and eccentric, with touches of oriental influence alongside the pseudo-western futuristic gizmos.
The effect should be doubly interesting for players, as Wellspring acts as an otherwise-peaceful hub in the main game.
It's far from peaceful here though. You and a buddy crouch behind pushcarts and packing crates as Shrouded fire out of windows and advance through the dust and brush.
Once you've fought through to the end of the street you can defuse the second bomb in the upstairs room of a tavern, but you then have to defend the position against attack from the street you just fought your way up.
In our case, one player goes down to the street and works along it with the shotgun, while the other provides overwatch with a fancy sniper rifle. The guy on the street goes down at one point and needs to be picked up with a revival grenade.
id says it isn't sure whether the Wasteland episodes will unlock sequentially (right now they do), but they will all draw on campaign events in some way. For example, there's an episode inspired by the Mutant Bash TV arena section.
Nobody from id will admit as much, but the Wasteland episodes also seem like obvious candidates for expansion via downloadable content. Speaking to id's Matt Hooper after the presentation, he says DLC for RAGE will probably be reactive rather than prescriptive, so it will be up to you to tell id what you want.
The hands-off presentation continues with our first glimpse of Subway Town, the other big hub area besides Wellspring, which you reach at the start of the last chapter of the campaign story.
We pick up as the protagonist disembarks a huge balloon thing in an underground cavern and is greeted by Captain Marshall, a terse chap with a robotic prosthetic leg. He leads you into the rebel base beneath Subway Town where the group resisting The Authority - RAGE's fascistic boogeymen - are assembled.
As with Wellspring, you quickly get a sense of how the game will revolve around these hubs. Each of the resistance crew has a role that supports you - weapons, comms, vehicle maintenance, etc - and up above are shops, mini-games and other quest-givers.
Marshall shows you a rescued Ark - one of the pods in which potential survivors are frozen and buried during RAGE's apocalyptic opening - which is being used to track Authority movements and power resistance efforts, and then says you should head upstairs and check in with the local mayor, Redstone.
Subway Town is a mixture of railway station, caravan park and engineering works. There's a bar, people offer you missions as you wander around, there's a bit of gambling to be done, and there's a talkative weapons dealer. There's even a Guitar Hero-style banjo mini-game called Twitch.
id then jumps us back to earlier in the game and a mission called Prison, where you've been sent to rescue the leader of the resistance. The prison is very beige and stony, pierced by thick sunlight, and a bit like Half-Life 2's Nova Prospekt there are hexagonal floor tiles, laser grids and other glimpses of alien or futuristic tech amidst the American penitentiary design.
It's also in a bit of a state of disrepair, with holes in the ceiling opening the air to the sun outside, and skeletal steel struts bent inward.
We're straight to action as Authority troops in power armour with cool blue electric shields drop in from the sky on ziplines and attack with lasers and grenades. They try to coordinate, using recharge stations and sharing natural and artificial cover, but you fend them off with a gun that fires little lightning bolts, an RC bomb car and of course the shotgun. Always the shotgun.
The next section involves evading security turret guns. You try to move across the room in-between bursts of fire so you can aim EMP grenades at the power sources.
By the time you reach the cell block where your prize is located, the Authority are patrolling in numbers, but you spy a number of shambling mutants locked up in the cells, so you pull a lever to release them and they leap the railings and attack the Authority for you. You just mop up the stragglers, using pulse shots to freeze them so you can smack 'em around.
You meet the resistance leader in the last cell and he says he has a way out - he just needs a couple of minutes to liberate a power cell from a nearby column. Predictably enough, this is not an opportunity for you to sit around and cool your heels - it's a prompt for Authority to steam in and receive a few more shells to the face.
You then move together through a dishevelled courtyard past abandoned, rusting trucks, amidst graffiti on the walls and under a baking sun. The Authority is everywhere though, so you use the striker crossbow, which allows you to take mind control of one of your enemies and stomp around gormlessly slapping former colleagues until you're put down.
When you reach the other end, the Authority reinforce with a three-pronged dropship, but you have access to a turret gun, which makes short work of them.
More on Rage
That's the end of the hands-off stuff, but we also get to play five (five!) sections of the game, some of which we've heard from before.
One of these is Mutant Bash TV, which is a bit like a cross between Smash TV and Gears of War's Horde mode. You fend off waves of enemies in increasingly and amusingly contrived scenarios - like mutants attacking as a giant monkey statue moves around the room spinning blades to chop you and them up - while a fat man on a potty commentates on your endeavours.
RAGE overall will be quite a diverse mixture of game styles and id is adamant that it will be well-paced, giving you downtime to upgrade and explore, either in the hub towns or out on the road, but these sections are more traditional and intensive action affairs, sending you through underground tunnels and dead cities as you assert yourself against various factions of mutants and bandits you encounter.
The action is fast and brutal and the weaponry is heavy. The most interesting thing though is the emphasis on using tools, gadgets and alternative ammo types.
Your combat toolbox is actually pretty interesting - you can send little robot helpers like the RC bomb car and spider bots to do your bidding, and the shiny items you find everywhere can be engineered into things like lock-grinders, used to crack your way into ammo caches and side rooms.
In many respects this is vintage id, of course - low-brain, high-velocity first-person shooting in a science-fiction setting, with plenty of monsters and soldiers to blast as you move between functional objectives (restore the water supply, rendezvous with the resistance).
In others though, RAGE is shaping up to be an interesting departure, and the balance the developers appear to have struck defies obvious comparisons. You certainly can't fault it for depth and variety.
And hey, we even know when it's done in advance for once. Who would have expected that just a few short years ago?